Last week President Biden halted all new leases for oil and gas on public land as part of a broader set of executive orders addressing climate change. The order directed Secretary of the Interior nominee Deb Haaland to review both federal leasing practices and royalties from the extraction companies. Haaland awaits Senate confirmation on her position.
While the order won’t affect current leases on federal land, it does stop more oil and gas from flowing into pipelines in the future and more money from royalties and “bonus bids'' flowing into state and federal coffers. The Utah congressional delegation has publicly opposed the order.
“The Biden administration’s arbitrary decision to suspend oil and gas leasing and permitting on federal lands is a serious mistake that will harm the same small Utah businesses that are already hurting from the pandemic,” said a joint statement from the Utah congressional delegation and some state officials. The statement criticizes the move as an “unprecedented” interference with routine permitting decisions.
Both Republicans and environmental groups agree that the pause in new leases will put pressure in the short term on rural communities that rely on fossil fuel income.
“In the short-term, the pause could pose challenges for workers and communities that have powered the nation for generations — unless the president pairs it with programs and investments,” a report from the National Wildlife Foundation notes, urging federal authorities to aid state and local governments as they transition away from funding drawn from oil and gas exploration.
Despite signing the joint statement, Rep. John Curtis (R-UT) has commented that he sees the pause as an opportunity for the U.S. to become a leader in renewable energy technology.
“The United States can lead on this,” Curtis said in an online discussion about technology and climate change hosted by The Hill. “We don’t want to miss the boat...We’ve got to get Republicans and Democrats to come together to make sure that we don’t miss this opportunity.”
The executive orders outlined several ways that the federal government intends to not only shift the energy policy towards addressing climate change but shift the energy economy to jobs based on renewable power. The lease halt is teamed with an order for the Department of the Interior to develop renewable energy projects on public land, increase offshore wind projects and create a “climate conservation corps.”
Although Southeast Utah has a rich history of mining, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, the industry only made up about 2% of Grand County’s economy between 2014 and 2018, employing about a 100 people. However, mineral lease monies have historically provided important, if inconsistent, funding for Grand County.
The lease halt is not likely to strongly impact the oil and gas industry in the long term, though according to data from the National Wildlife Fund, the order could raise fossil fuel prices in the short term.
Over 26 million acres of currently leased land nationwide remain open to development, according to NWF’s information.
Another Biden administration executive order directing officials to look into reinstating the original boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument could impact the economies of southern Utah.
According to a study from Resources For the Future, a nonprofit research institution, national monuments increase the number of jobs in surrounding areas by 8.5% and increase the number of local businesses by 10%. The study also found that monuments tend not to have much of an effect on existing mining or grazing.
While the Utah delegation raises concerns about federal overreach, aspects of the executive orders may end up being a boon for southern Utah and a way for the United States to become a leader in the new energy economy.
“This one point should get them excited,” said John Curtis, “and that is that we are on the cusp of either becoming the world leader in this technology or letting somebody else do it.”